Stimulating and guiding creative writing through questions

By encouraging students to focus on detail they can construct more effective creative, or imaginative and descriptive, writing.

When I was an inexperienced teacher I found that I fell back on creative writing as a standby task, especially for homework. I presumed that students at secondary level did not really need guidance as they had been writing stories in primary schools for years. Very early on I learnt two lessons.

One boy, let’s call him A, wrote stories that always included violence and mayhem. I told him to write about something personal and familiar to his own experience. His next attempt began, “My name is A and I am a private detective in New York.” Happily I don’t remember what followed. Lesson? Most writing is derivative.

The second lesson concerned S who never produced homework assignments, claiming, “I ain’t got no imagination.” Mistakenly I was more worried about his grammar than his excuse. Then one day he brought me an impressive piece in response to my own desperate lack of imagination when I set “a visit to the hospital” as a homework assignment.

It was detailed and authentic. I asked him to what he owed this epiphany. He explained that the night he was due to write it his brother had fallen down the stairs and broken his leg, so S had spent the evening in A&E observing his surroundings.

That was my own epiphany; I realised students needed guidance. I needed to think much more clearly about the relevance of what I was asking them to do, how I could help with style, vocabulary and structure, and how visualisation and imagination are almost synonymous.

When I gave a group a title from an old O-level paper (that dates me and the contemporary approach then prevalent) “describe a doctor’s waiting room,” they complained that they had no idea how to approach the task. So I started asking them questions. What magazines might they find?

What kind of table were they on? What were the chairs like? What posters were on the wall? What shape were the windows? What colour the curtains? What did the other people look like? What noises could they hear?

The responses were clear and immediate and, naturally, differed in detail but were similar in general. The next time I asked them to describe their primary school room. This time they asked each other questions, sometimes rhetorical, ‘do you remember…?’ sometimes for information, ‘did you have …?’

As an oral stimulus it was perfect, but when it came to the written response it was often haphazard and more of a list than an ordered description. So I began to formalise the approach. I let them talk and then I asked them to write quick, short responses to my questions. After that we collected vocabulary and wrote it on the board – that’s what we did in those days!

Quite quickly I ran out of ideas for describing familiar things, but I realised that the ‘interrogatory’ approach was valid in new and more demanding situations. I brought in pictures – no internet then – and asked the students to describe what they saw. Then we moved on to imagining what was happening in the picture; what the characters were feeling; what had happened before and what might happen afterwards; what the motivation or reason for such events might be.

The next step was to look at films and TV narratives and deconstruct them, whilst concurrently reading stories and analysing descriptive techniques. And all the time I was guiding students to interrogate texts – including those of their own making.

In this laboured way, I developed a new approach to creative writing and given that the pinnacle of Bloom’s taxonomy is now considered to be creativity, I suppose to some extent we English teachers had anticipated that development.

In its simplest terms, the rationale for this approach is that by encouraging students to focus on detail they can construct more effective creative or imaginative and descriptive writing.

Creative writing 2

So what are the preconditions – ‘rules’ if you prefer – for this activity?

Firstly, students must respond to the teacher’s questions without discussion or too much thinking time. This avoids distraction and prevents other more dominant or vociferous students influencing the members of the group.

Secondly, responses must be written (but not marked or corrected) in silence. They should be spontaneous and quick. The idea is that they can go back and revise or expand ideas later.

Finally, the subject matter should not be too restrictive but should be visual – literally as in a picture or illustration; or virtually – as in a familiar scene easily imagined. For instance, you might want a model for a description, say Stoker’s description of Dracula, but you might want to read it afterwards rather than risk the responses becoming too formulaic.

So let’s take that as an example. Put up a picture of Dracula say from a film poster or ask them to imagine him. Now ask them to describe:

The very top of his head His hair colour and style His ears
His forehead Eyebrows Eyelids
Eyes (including whites and irises) Cheekbones and cheeks Complexion
Nose Top lip and mouth Teeth
Chin Neck Shoulders and arms
Clothes Hands including fingers and nails Height and build
Voice How he stands, sits or moves Effect on people

You could use the same technique for:

A static scene such as a beach or crowded street on a rainy day; or the view from a bedroom window on a snowy evening.
Your questions should be carefully structured to focus on details and give sense of form. So students can start from one side and pan across; or start with a central point – say a character or object – and describe individual features (as with the Dracula description). They should then describe what is immediately below/above/next to/etc. and gradually move outwards, but always in detail.

Questions should draw responses engaging the senses; sounds near and far, constant and sudden; touch, including weather effects; smells and what they evoke; and taste.

An illustration, such as the painting, ‘Coming out of school’ by L S Lowry.
Some questions you could ask your class on the painting:

How many in the class? What did they do in school?
How many rooms? What did they sit on?
Choose one figure:  
How old are they? How many are in the family?
What will they have for tea? Describe what they’re wearing
Describe the house they’re going back to
What is the weather like? What can they smell?
What is underfoot? What have they been learning?
What do their parents do for a living? What are the two boys in the bottom corner doing?
Why is the boy in the middle running? What illnesses have the children had?

A film still or an advertisement such as a film poster, or a short clip from a film, such as the opening of Lean’s “Great Expectations”, all of which have narratives.
Here you can use questions to produce a description (as above) or use analysis of mise-en-scene.

Responses might include;

  1. Where is the scene set? What is the atmosphere? The weather?
  2. What colours are used? What effect does this have?
  3. How is the scene lit?
  4. How do the characters’ costume, hair and make-up tell you about them?
  5. What sound effects are used?
  6. What props are used?
  7. What camera angles or perspectives are used?
  8. How are the people and/or objects placed in relation to each other?

In effect, by deconstructing a scene using your questions, you are showing students how to (re)construct a scene through description.

Ultimately, you can aim to construct a complete piece of imaginative writing by using questions to;

  • Set the scene and atmosphere
  • Introduce the characters
  • Move the action to another location
  • Describe the emotions and reactions of characters
  • Construct a narrative

A practical example of this occurred a few years ago when I was employed by a local school to try and improve the grades of a group of students who had been entered in November for English Language and gained a C grade. For their creative writing piece we constructed Magwitch’s version of his story.

Together we researched conditions on the Victorian ships, read the relevant chapters from the book and watched and analysed the film. Then we asked questions about him and his situation; what were conditions like on the hulks, the food, the punishments, etc. The approach had reached its logical conclusion. Now the students were both asking and responding to the questions they set themselves.

Finally, I would say that a way of thinking about the process is as a continuum:

Simple questions such as what colour, who and where --> What adjective, adverb or verb might be used to achieve an effect --> How the character might react, feel and express emotion

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